Tuesday, March 10, 1998

Ray Nitschke Remembered

I'm going to jump in with my own Ray Nitschke remembrance. It picks up on an interview I heard on KCBS radio in San Francisco Monday morning. John Madden has a segment each morning, where he talks about whatever is on his mind. Unfortunately I missed the first minute or two, but caught the end. He was talking about Ray Nitschke, and was making the point that he (Madden) had spent enough time around Nitschke to KNOW that Nitschke considered it an honor when someone asked for his autograph, and that he was genuinely happy to give one. My personal encounter with Nitschke bears this out.

It was 1989 (the "Majik Man" year). A semi-business meeting was scheduled for a Saturday in September in Chicago. Checking the calendar and realizing that the Packers were playing the Saints in Lambeau Field the following day, and being no dummy, I decided that I really needed to go to the Chicago meeting myself rather than sending someone else. I decided to take my dad to the game, something I had never done, since our tickets come from my wife's side of the family.

I boarded a plane at O'Hare about 5:00 in the evening on Saturday, heading for Appleton. The plane was scheduled to stop in Green Bay first and then continue to Appleton (makes no sense geographically, but must have made sense to United Express, or Air Wisconsin, or whoever it was at that time).

As I was waiting for the plane to get going, I noticed that the last guy to get on the plane, right as they closed the door, was none other than Ray Nitschke. (It is hard to miss him, even in a non-football setting.) For some reason, he was always a special Packer to me. My wife and I even named one of our cats after him (the cat is now 12 or 13 years old, and is showing his age).

I decided that I would ask for his autograph, but thought I would leave him alone until just before the approach to the Green Bay airport. When the time came, I pulled my copy of Ray Nitschke's Packer Report out of my briefcase, and walked to the front to ask for his autograph. We talked for awhile. I explained that I was a subscriber of his, living in California, but was going home and was going to the game with my dad. He said that was just great (and I think he really meant it, too). He wrote a nice note for me on a piece of stationery I handed him. I then started blubbering something about what a great honor it was to meet him. He brushed the blubbering aside with something like "aw, go on." He could not have been nicer. I'm looking at his note now:

To Tom Freeman
"A Super Packer Fan."
Best of Luck. Always
Keep Happy & Well -
Love Ya - God Bless
Friend in Green Bay
Old "66"
Ray Nitschke

As a little postscript, for several years I have been meaning to send Ray Nitschke a picture of Nitschke the cat, explaining that we named the cat Nitschke because of his red hair and sweet disposition. Unfortunately, I never did. What they say is true - if you have something nice to say or do, do it before it is too late.

Monday, March 9, 1998

Super Bowl XXXII Post-Mortem

Well, I guessed wrong on the Super Bowl. Probably almost everyone reading this article did, too. I just felt so sure that the Packers were the better team, and I figured that the better team usually wins in the Super Bowl. Now that more than a month has gone by since the Super Bowl, I am finally coming to grips with writing this brief post-mortem.

I have seen some fellow Packer fans argue that the Packers ARE the better team, but they just had a bad day on January 25. I'm not prepared to go that far. About as far as I would go is to say that if the Super Bowl were replayed 10 times, the Packers MIGHT win the majority of those games. And I'm not even real confident about that any more.

It's not like the Packers outplayed the Broncos but lost the game due to some bad call, or due to some fluky play. The Packers were just pushed around by the Broncos for much of the game, especially in the second half. With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to put 2 D-linemen on the inactive list, combined with Gabe Wilkins' early game injury, just put too much burden on too few D-linemen in the second half.

I do wonder why more wasn't done to adjust to the way the game was unfolding - maybe stacking the line of scrimmage, daring Elway to beat them with the passing game. Maybe the Packers did adjust, and it just didn't work, but watching the game in the stadium (i.e. without benefit of TV commentators), I did not see the adjustment.

I also question what seemed to be the almost-total abandonment of the running game in the second half. The statistics in the game show that Levens was running for a pretty good average, and run defense was supposed to be a glaring weakness of the Broncos. And the game was always a TD or less away from a tie game in the second half. Oh, what a couple of sustained drives on offense might have done for the tiring Packer defensive line. But for whatever reason, they did abandon the run, and the rest is very painful history for us Packer fans.

As this is being written on March 9, the year of 1998 seems like a nightmare. The Packers lost the Super Bowl, and now have lost Craig Hentrich, Edgar Bennett, Doug Evans, Gabe Wilkins, Eugene Robinson and Aaron Taylor. And yesterday came the sad news of the death of Ray Nitschke, one of my personal heroes.

But I prefer to look at the bright side. The Packers did win the NFC Championship, before my very eyes in the rain at 3Com Park. They did finish as the second best team in the league. They have the best quarterback in the league. They have locked up Robert Brooks, and taken steps to lock up Antonio Freeman and Dorsey Levens, at least for this year. And, according to published reports, the Packers are still the favorites to win Super Bowl XXXIII. They are listed as 5-2 favorites, followed by San Francisco and Denver at 5-1.

Things may look a little dark now. But longtime Packer fans know that things could be a whole lot worse.

Only four months to training camp....